Alberta Cancer Foundation

Expert Advice on Cancer Screening

Illustration by Jennifer Madole

 

Preventative medicine is a crucial component of healthy living. Getting screened for certain types of cancer is one potentially life-saving preventative measure people can take. Dr. Huiming Yang is the medical director of screening programs for Alberta Health Services, and we spoke with him about who should be getting screened and how it works.

Why is cancer screening important?

Screening can identify either precancerous lesions or cancer at a very early stage when treatment is the most effective. If done in a proper way, cancer screening will help reduce the incidence and the mortality of certain cancers.

What’s the process for someone who wants to get screened?

They can call their doctor to make an appointment to discuss cancer screening, the pros and cons, and what tests are right for them. In preparation for that conversation they can visit screeningforlife.ca to have a better understanding of risk levels, risk factors, what tests we’re talking about and also the risks of the tests themselves.

For what cancers do you recommend screening?

We recommend screening for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers. For cervical cancer screening, we recommend sexually active women start screening at the age of 25, and then every three years until the age of 69. For breast cancer screening, women should start getting screening mammograms at the age of 50, and then every two years until the age of 74. And lastly, for colorectal cancer, men and women aged 50 and older should be getting screened every one to two years with FIT [short for fecal immunochemical test] until the age of 74. Those ages are for the vast majority of people who are at average risk.

How do people find out if they are high risk?

They should have a discussion with their doctor to determine their risk level. Their doctor will recommend appropriate screening tests for them, but I want to emphasize that the vast majority of people are at average risk for cervical, breast and colorectal cancers.

Can people who haven’t reached those ages still get screened?

Unless they are high-risk, we actually don’t recommend that people screen early. The overall benefit to early screening is questionable, compared to potential harms, because the cancer risk is much lower. There is also a higher likelihood of a false-positive result.